Electoral Violence in Yemen Five Months Early
Violence is breaking out all over Yemen, especially in the Southern governorates, in advance of April’s Parliamentary elections. Angry citizens have repeatedly attacked and expelled voter registration committees, and security forces opened fire on several occasions.
Yemen’s opposition party alliance, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), is boycotting the registration process because the government reneged on implementing needed electoral reforms. Southern Yemenis just elected their own representative body, the Southern Arabian Liberation Council (SALC), which has called for an electoral boycott claiming the central government, not just the election, is illegitimate in the south.
Yemen’s government deploys the institutions, processes and rhetoric of democracy to legitimize its rule and gain western support. In reality, the consolidation of democracy has made little progress since 1994 when Saleh’s forces re-imposed a unified state on southern Yemen by force. At the center of the national dynamic is greed. Saleh’s regime loots the state treasury at every step of administration. Brutal security forces, secret police, corrupt courts and systematic torture are the systems in place for those who do not succumb to bribery, blackmail and threats. While the forms of democracy have spread, the practice has not.
Elections since 1993 reduced the citizenry’s access to power and reinforced autocratic tribal power structures. The parliamentary majority of Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), increased from 123 seats in 1993, to 187 in 1997 and 238 in 2003.
Through time, the state and ruling party became one entity. The state’s position as the largest employer in Yemen became a weapon of partisan politics. The GPC deployed a myriad of governmental resources in support of its candidates during the 2006 local and presidential election, and in meting out retribution after. Yemen’s first governors’ election in 2008 was a hasty process that rubber stamped GPC candidates. In the few cases where an independent won, the results were promptly overturned.
The impact of the ruling party’s merger with the state is magnified by the winner take all system (first past the post). The Yemeni opposition has long championed the proportional or list system. After the 2006 election, the ruling and opposition parties agreed to a number of electoral reforms based on recommendations from EU election observers. The GPC reneged, prompting the JMP to urge citizens not to register. The US funded National Democratic Institute that has been working with the parties is now urging consensus and, if necessary, postponing the election to allow time for the parties to come to an agreement. President Saleh said the election will go forward and numerous opposition activists have been arrested. Tensions have flared with Marib, Amran and Haja witnessing violence against electoral committees.
A significant development is South Yemen’s rejection of the entire political process. Yearlong regional protests were met with bullets and tanks, prompting southern Yemen to self-organize a representative political mechanism. The election of the Southern Arabian Liberation Council may have been the first “free and fair election” in Yemeni history. Its platform advocates a peaceful struggle for independence. The election results were announced in Yafi’ on November 14. The body consists of a president (Hassan Ba’oum), a ten member cabinet, 25 administrative officers and 352 National Council members.
The majority of Yemenis- north and south- are excluded from the ruling oligarchy. However Southern Yemen was under British rule for over a hundred years during which time several full bodied civil institutions functioned efficiently and impartially. The same cannot be said of northern Yemen during the Imamate or since the 1962 Republican Revolution. After the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen, media censorship, corruption and discrimination thwarted the institutional and cultural merger of the two Yemens. In Yemen, different histories and expectations are producing different outcomes among one people.
The 1994 north-south civil war ended with the military victory of President Saleh’s northern forces. Since then, southerners claim, the south has been looted as the spoils of war. Southerners perceive themselves as treated as third class citizens who face institutionalized discrimination and exclusion from the central government, which is firmly in the grip of the President and his family.
Public protests began in the south in May 2007. Dozens of demonstrators were shot by police, hundreds injured and over a thousand arrested. The regime’s response to the civil unrest consisted of a schizophrenic mix of violence, arrests and defamation sprinkled with fleeting allusions to wrong-doing by regime officials and superficial remedies to discriminatory policies. Thousands of troops reinforced the areas of greatest unrest. As government failed to remedy or even address the inequality, the response of the populist protest movement was to organize.
The failings of the JMP also had a demoralizing effect in the south where many as recently as 2006 were politically enfranchised and supportive of the opposition presidential candidate Faisel bin Shamlan. Southern disappointment lay not so much in the thuggish behavior of the GPC, which was expected, but instead in the opposition’s personal self-interest and capitulation. At a rally in the southern town of al-Dhalie on March 6, JMP speakers were pelted with stones and forced to leave. The JMP was again expelled from demonstrations in Radfan and Abyan in May 2008. Western observers’ lavish praise of a flawed process increased the sense of betrayal prevalent in the south. Following the 2006 election, it was the hope of achieving justice and equal rights in a unified state that prompted the year long demonstrations. It was the loss of that hope that brought about the Liberation Council which formally advances the notion that the south is illegally occupied by northern forces.
Electoral committees have been expelled throughout the south. There are also numerous no-go areas for government forces, including parts of Yafe, al-Dhalie, Abyan and others formerly under government control. All (northern) central government officials were expelled from Toor Albaha in Lahj in April 2008 and 40 soldiers captured. The soldiers were released four months later when the government agreed to several demands. Sheik Musa al-Nakhibi was freed by force from jail in Yafe on November 1. He had been charged with providing security for Hassan Ba’oum during the first Yafe conference in late October. The second Yafe conference, which elected the cabinet, was heavily guarded by men with RPGs, including farmers, laborers, academics and professionals.